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It was Valentine’s Day of 2018 when a shooter opened fire inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killing 17 students and staff members.
Over and over this year we have seen, heard and reported harrowing scenes like this one.
School districts across the state have asked for more money for mental health.
A second student who survived the Parkland shooting in Florida died in an apparent suicide. This comes about a week after a 19 year old survivor took her own life.
KAI KOERBER Experiencing the Parkland shooting, it was a really horrible day, a horrible couple of weeks, actually. You know, and I had been sitting around the house and I didn’t know what to do. I had no idea how to respond, how to live my life, because everything I knew had at that point been shattered. So I didn’t know how to bounce back from that. My mother, she gave me direction at that time in my life. I could not have asked for a better compass, to be honest. There was one point where I’m sitting down and watching students from my school get out and be active and petition lawmakers and let the public know what they wanted to see going forward. And I said, well, that that’s very brave of them to do that. How do I get involved? So it was really my mother and I, on the grind every other day trying to get my voice out there because it was tough. And honestly, I think her being there for me was more so than her driving me around to be able to talk to these reporters her believing in me. I didn’t know that I was capable of doing the things that I did. My mother saw that for me and she said, listen, you’re going to do this. Even today, she’s really in my corner. There is nobody else I could talk to about the things that I experience and the things I want to see going forward in my life besides my mother.
DACHER KELTNER Kai Koerber was a senior at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He in guitar class when the shooting began. He texted his mom, “Something is happening at my school. I’m not sure, but I just want to let you know that if anything happens to me, that I love you.” After surviving that day, Kai has devoted himself to promoting student mental health by bringing mindfulness into classrooms across the country. Kai is now an undergraduate here at UC Berkeley, studying computer science. He’s also the founder of The Societal Reform Corp, a nonprofit working to put mental health curricula into schools to help students learn how to manage the stress that they deal with in their daily lives. We asked Kai to choose a practice to bring more happiness and connection into his life, and he’s here in studio today to share with us how it went, and to tell us more about the work he does promote mental health in schools. Kai, it’s truly a pleasure to have you as our guest on The Science of Happiness.
KAI KOERBER Thanks for having me.
DACHER KELTNER You know, Kai, a really important part of the science of happiness is what happens to us when we’re unhappy, when we face chronic stress or difficulty, or even trauma, like you have. We know a lot about how these can things damage our minds and bodies, even after the immediate danger is gone. Experiencing something like school shooting can lead to anxiety, depression, disrupted sleep, problems with the immune system, body pains and headaches and the like. How did you work throughout your own trauma after the Parkland shooting?
KAI KOERBER I think one of the things that really got me through it really helped put things in perspective, was meditation. Meditation is something that I use basically on a daily basis to relax.
DACHER KELTNER What do you do?
KAI KOERBER The foundational thing is you fall your focus on your breathing. I focus on a word mentally. So say the word, for example, is, “small.” You focus on the spelling of that word and just get the ideas to just get you thinking about one thing. Because the average person is thinking about, “my God, I got this exam. Oh, my God. I’ve got X, Y and Z going on in my life.” You want to focus on X and then eventually you want to get to zero. It’s really a humbling experience every time I do it, because I feel like it’s just a very interesting way of grounding yourself. Not only the present, but just who you are. If we really look at this from a simple perspective here, you have to be mentally, for lack of a better word, insane to walk into a room and kill 20 people. You know, you have to be in a state of emotional imbalance for that to occur. So I figured why not give people the tools they needed holistically? I figured why not give them tools like meditation, EFT tapping and other mindfulness practices to be able to come to kind of tap in with themselves and mitigate their negative emotions when they arose. We’re programmed to be hyper stressed out all the time because no one really sat us down and talked to us about, “Hey you might want to take a breather because especially for me I know people who are going to this school amongst me, they’re programmed to think if they’re not hustling they’re they’re slacking and they stress about not doing anything. And it’s like, oh, I should be doing something. So really they have to learn to be comfortable with the absence of activity.
DACHER KELTNER What kind of response do you get from young people that you’re talking to? What do they say to you?
KAI KOERBER I think for a lot of people, it’s believing that they can find solace in the absence of activity once again. It’s a really hard thing to convince people of such people who aren’t already comfortable or grew up around the idea.
DACHER KELTNER One of the things we know from the mindfulness literature, when you follow the breath and you slow it down, you get grateful for things. And perhaps not coincidentally, you chose the ‘Gratitude Letter’ as your practice. Can you walk us through what that practice is? We know it really works. I mean, this is one of the practices that really benefits happiness.
KAI KOERBER Well the way it was broken down to me was you’re gonna have to write to the person you’re addressing directly. So you really just want to explain how this person’s behavior affected your life. Describe what you’re doing in your life now. And then once you write this letter, you want to give it to the recipient, then you want to get a response from them, of course, because that’s what letters are, that’s what they’re for.
DACHER KELTNER Why did you choose the gratitude letter?
KAI KOERBER Gratitude itself is the basis for all these practices. You can’t start a meditation saying, you know what, I’m not grateful for anything. Because at the end of the day, when you go through this practice at the end, you’re going to think about what am I grateful for? Whether it’s just the circumstance that you glaze over with your eyes every day being the trees, the air, the people around you, things like that. You’re gonna feel a deeper sense of appreciation for life.
DACHER KELTNER Gratitude is associated with a remarkable range of physical and psychological benefits. When we practice gratitude we tend to have better cardiovascular health, stronger immune systems, lower stress levels, we sleep better, and we report more satisfaction with their lives. When we express our gratitude to others, as you did when you wrote the Gratitude Letter, it can also cause a ripple effect. A new study suggests that simply witnessing some else’s act of gratitude can inspire people to want to connect and be more helpful to one another. So who did you write to?
KAI KOERBER I wrote my letter to my mother.
DACHER KELTNER Right on.
KAI KOERBER That’s obviously a person that’s had a profound impact on my life.
DACHER KELTNER So would you mind reading it for us, Kai?
KAI KOERBER “Dear Ma, thank you is how every letter I write to you should begin. Thank you for loving me before I knew what love was. When you became pregnant with me, you were young. I was a surprise, an unexpected addition to the family. But you made space for me in everyone’s life. You made grandma and grandpa buy a house so I can grow up in a safe town. Thank you for trusting in God and persevering, knowing that you were going to be a single mother. Thank you for not giving up on me when I was a spoiled brat in daycare, refusing to let you go to work. I loved you. I don’t wanna let you go. And even now, when I’m twenty five hundred miles away, I call you every day because you’re my best friend. You know me, and you taught me what it is to believe and hold love in your heart, even when the world shows you evil. Thank you for knowing. Thank you for seeing me in your dreams before I was born in allowing me to enter this world. Thank you for teaching me how to hold a vision for the future while sitting in the greatness of the universe. Thank you for picking me up when the world kicked me down. Thank you for teaching me how to be a man, a good man. And most importantly, may we continue this fight together. I love you, Ma.”
DACHER KELTNER It’s amazing. What’s your mom like?
KAI KOERBER I mean, my mother is an extremely tenacious person, probably one of the strongest people that I know. And so needless to say, she inspired a lot of that tenacious spirit in me. She’s a very big believer in the fact that if you put the intention out there, and if you do the work, you will get the outcome that you want, regardless of how many doors closed in your face. You’re gonna get what you want. Even when I can’t fight for myself, my mother is always in my corner, always ready to bat for me. Ready to die for me. Constantly. And I couldn’t ask for anyone better.
DACHER KELTNER You talked earlier about how, after the shooting at your school, your mom helped you share your message of the need to bring a holistic mental health into classrooms. She got you in front of reporters, guided you through starting your organization. But what about those first days and weeks after the shooting? What did she say to support you at that time?
KAI KOERBER Well, it wasn’t so much what she said, it was the things that she did. She really put forward this energy that was things are gonna be all right. Things are gonna be better than all right. They’re going to be masterful. And you’re going to be the captain of your own soul and the master of your own destiny. That’s really something that she would express to me every day in more ways than one. My family really always made me write affirmation exercises and things like that, what I wanted to see going forward. So writing affirmations every day is something she would tell me to do. Just seeing a better tomorrow is something that she not only told me, but also telling me that things were gonna be okay and that I was going to come out the other side better and stronger as a person is something that, you need, especially in that kind of a circumstance. But I don’t think I’d be where I am today without that.
DACHER KELTNER After you wrote a Gratitude Letter to your mom, you asked her to write one back to you. And you know, studies find that gratitude is so often reciprocal, and I love that you did that, even though it wasn’t one of the ‘formal’ steps of Gratitude Letter practice. What compelled you to ask your mom to write a gratitude letter to you?
KAI KOERBER Well, I mean, I wanted to know what she would say! You know, I feel like it would complete the experience of the concrete transmission of this gratitude and this love energy. I think it really solidifies the experience. So, I was at the time and still am, very appreciative that I solidified the experience and I get to keep that letter forever. That’s a timeless thing for me and my mother.
DACHER KELTNER After your mom wrote you a Gratitude Letter, she recorded herself reading it and then emailed the audio over to you. Let’s listen to what she had to say.
ALANA KOERBER “Dear Kai, my dear son. Love. You taught me what that was. Before you, I didn’t understand how to give of myself without reserve. I didn’t understand what patience was before you. My soul is connected to yours. My heart is your heart. I thank God that you were here with me in this world. I thank God for sparing your life on many occasions. I believe in you. And I will hold you up. And love you no matter what you accomplish or don’t accomplish. My dear son, I love you. And I will always be with you. You are my gift from God. And you are a light in this world. I love you.”
DACHER KELTNER What was it like for you to hear that letter from your mom?
KAI KOERBER It’s definitely a letter that everyone should get from their mom. My mom, she’s probably the best person that I know. It’s really good to know that she feels leaps and bounds the same way.
DACHER KELTNER So while the very act of writing a gratitude letter can lead to enduring changes in our health and well-being, you reap significantly greater benefits from delivering and reading the letter in person. In one study, adolescents who didn’t generally experience positive emotions showed a significant boost in how they felt for up two months after hand-delivering a gratitude letter. You obviously couldn’t read your letter to your mother in person because she’s in Florida and you’re in California. But the next alternative is usually a phone call or a video chat. How did you share your original Gratitude letter with your mom?
KAI KOERBER I wrote it in Google Docs and then I emailed it to her. And she was like, wow, it’s good to know that my son loves me this much. And I’m like, yeah yeah yeah I love you. And so she wrote me a response. And then she said, well, you have to read out loud his. And I’m definitely down for that.
DACHER KELTNER I wanted to ask you as we close out our show, what gives you hope? Like when you look at your generation, 18, 19, 20 years old, facing lots of things. You know, you are throwing yourself into it. What do you find hope in, what you find strengthening?
KAI KOERBER I think I find hope in people’s limitless capacity for good. I’ve run into people that were so pure of heart or such pure hearts that I didn’t even know it was possible outside of my own family. College is a unique place. It puts you in a place where you’re forced to kind of live with people you don’t know, and you either jive with them or you don’t. But at some point, you find people who jive with you. When you jive with those people, it’s a different kind of friendship. My mother always told me, in college, you’re going to find the friends you’re gonna have for us your life. But it’s really true. If you find your circle and you find you’re lucky to experience people who have the limitless capacity for good, if you experience that, it would give anybody hope because you can see the bright side of every day.
DACHER KELTNER Well Kai, thank you for all the work you’re doing for today’s young people. And thank you for being on The Science of Happiness.
KAI KOERBER Of course.
DACHER KELTNER When we practice gratitude, we tend to experience more positive emotions, stronger social connections and a host of other benefits.
KENDALL COTTON BRONK Given the widespread benefits of practicing gratitude, it would be really valuable for individuals to adopt this habit just as early as they could.
DACHER KELTNER When we start to practice gratitude habitually, that’s when the big benefits start to kick in. We become more motivated, healthier. We start paying attention to the good things in our lives on a daily basis, we’re more aware of other people’s efforts to help us. We also express our appreciation to others more often.
KENDALL COTTON BRONK And then not only that, I think one of the most interesting benefits are the social benefits. Individuals who habitually practice gratitude report having better interpersonal relationships, which I think makes sense.
DACHER KELTNER Kendall Cotton Bronk is an associate professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University.
KENDALL COTTON BRONK Gratitude really hinges on individuals being able to engage in perspective taking. So we need to be able to understand another person’s thoughts, what’s going through somebody else’s mind.
DACHER KELTNER That’s because gratitude requires imagining the thought behind the gifts or acts of kindness that we receive.
KENDALL COTTON BRONK So it’s into adolescence, the beginning of adolescence, where these things sort of coalesce and young people are really developmentally prepared to experience gratitude and experience the benefits associated with gratitude.
DACHER KELTNER Kendall and her team conducted a study to see if they could encourage the habit of a more grateful mindset among adolescents and young adults. They split them up into four groups. Three did activities linked to gratitude, and one did a memorization activity. For the groups focused on gratitude, one wrote about three good things that happened to them that day. Another wrote about something somebody did for them they were grateful for, and they got some kind of benefit. And then the third group wrote a gratitude letter. Each activity took about five minutes … All three ‘gratitude’ groups reported feeling more grateful at the end of the study.
KENDALL COTTON BRONK We also found that these activities encouraged not only gratitude but also hope, which we thought was really interesting. And pro-social intentions. And by that we mean a desire to give back to the world beyond the self.
DACHER KELTNER Next Kendall, and her team had the study participants do all three of the gratitude activities.
KENDALL COTTON BRONK Gratitude is really sort of all encompassing and it includes both the thoughts about gratitude and the interpretations about gratitude and also the expressions of gratitude. So we wondered if rolling all of these activities up into one might encourage sort of a fuller sense of gratitude.
DACHER KELTNER They found that this more integrated approach –– which still took less than 20 minutes for most people to complete –– led participants to a deeper experience of gratitude.
KENDALL COTTON BRONK I think the gratitude letter is a fantastic and really moving activity and I very much encourage it. But in order to keep gratitude going on a daily basis, maybe combining it with some of these other activities, that might be a good way to keep that practice of gratitude going strong.
DACHER KELTNER If you’d like to try writing a Gratitude Letter yourself, visit our Greater Good in Action website at ggia.berkeley.edu.
Tell us how it went by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or using the hashtag #HappinessPod.
I’m Dacher Kelnter, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Our podcast is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance is from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producers are Brett Simpson and Ariella Markowitz. Our executive producer is Jane Park. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. Our science director is Emiliana Simon-Thomas. Special thanks to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.